In the newest season of Mind of a Chef, Danny Bowien, fresh from a trip to China’s Sichuan province, tells the camera, “Sichuan food is what made me.” This is true in the most banal sense: Bowien, a New York transplant by way of Seoul, Oklahoma City, and San Francisco, built his reputation and his flagship restaurant, Mission Chinese Food, on garlic and peppercorns and bean paste, on dishes so hot they famously numb and tickle. But this is not what Bowien means. He is talking about something much closer to the heart: “It made me find out who I was as a person, in a weird way.”
Since its debut on PBS in 2012, Mind of a Chef has matured into television’s most fascinating document of the creative mind at work. The show has distinguished itself by treating its stars, who change each season, as both subjects and hosts. Like other chefs on television, they teach viewers how to make dishes: ramen, rabbit pie, braised octopus, scotch eggs, mapo tofu, even a wild trout roe in a warm crust of dried pigs’ blood. But unlike other television chefs, they are invited to examine their obsessions, plumb their memories, and pass through old haunts like ghosts of their former selves.
As we accompany them on this journey, we learn how taste, that mysterious marriage of sense and sensibility, is developed. We understand why April Bloomfield (season two) prefers her fried eggs with a crispy corona, and why Gabrielle Hamilton (season four) used to serve her guests sardines in a can. We see how every dish is a small facet of the self, how formative moments, particularly those from childhood, inform decisions about seasoning and texture, char and spice. Mind of a Chef is about how food is made, yes; but it is also about how a person comes into being, how the ingredients of her life have been combined just so.
The show’s executive producer is Anthony Bourdain, its production company Zero Point Zero, and its aesthetic formula will be familiar to anyone who has watched Parts Unknown or No Reservations. The food is filmed with a Terrence Malick–like tenderness, and there are aching shots of Rome, Chengdu, Tokyo, and Paris that will send you searching for cheap airfares on the internet. But there’s also a grimy streak to Mind of a Chef that captures the ways in which professional cooking is still a punkish subculture. There are animated sequences that borrow the visceral, almost grotesque stylings of Lucky Peach, the defunct food magazine co-founded by Momofuku’s David Chang (the host of season one). It’s as if the show is trying to say that no matter how glamorous the culinary world becomes, it can never escape its grubby roots, back in the kitchen with the potato peelings and fish scales. Just picture Hamilton with her regal mien, every hair swept casually into perfect place, plunging her hands into a big old cephalopod.
Perhaps no chef quite captures the show’s desired balance between high and low, body and mind, as well as Bowien. Whereas Bourdain styled himself as an adventuring chef—ranging about the world with a bottomless appetite for sensual pleasures—Bowien is sensitive, cerebral, the observing eye turned inward. The connection between self-discovery and food goes right back to the beginning of gastronomy. Think of Brillat-Savarin’s famous line—“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”—or biographies in food like M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me and Jacques Pepin’s The Apprentice. But even though food television is a booming industry, few shows have attempted to draw this connection out in a serious way, capturing the chef’s depths and contradictions.
Slender as a stalk of grass, and a new convert to SoulCycle, Bowien is a departure from Falstaffian figures like Mario Batali. He is fond of high-end clothing brands, like Vetements, that essentially produce glorified street wear. In the first episode of season six we see him get a tattoo high on his chest, so that a little devil’s head can be seen peeping out over his shirt collar. “It’s about having fun,” he tells a grinning Korean tattoo artist. But the devil is also a subversive nod to his past, namely his deeply Christian parents in Oklahoma, who adopted him from South Korea when he was a newborn.
For all his sensitivity, Bowien can house a bowl of noodles with the best of them, and cooks with an aggressive abandon that teeters into total chaos. To a bowl of Shin Ramyun—a spicy instant ramen from Korea seemingly packed with near lethal levels of MSG—he adds, in order, rice cake, threaded egg, mozzarella, grilled poblanos, grilled serranos, chrysanthemum greens, a mound of mapo tofu (which is a whole other dish), chili oil, sesame leaves, roasted seaweed, and roasted soybean powder. (Bowien’s style reminds me of an old line by the exuberant comic writer Stanley Elkin: “I don’t believe that less is more. I believe that more is more.”) The resulting dish is a messy tower of stuff, a puddle of bright red ramen broth at the bottom. It is almost how a kid envisions cooking, adding this then that.
But is that any way to build a life? Or, to put it in more politically resonant terms, an identity? The first episode, titled “Genesis,” is devoted to this conundrum, featuring Bowien wandering around downtown Seoul, his skin tinged a melancholy blue by neon lights. “I’m this puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit,” he says, lamenting his inability to speak Korean. In lieu of a clear-cut identity, he has claimed all the world’s flavors as his heritage, and brought them together to produce a mongrel cuisine that is unique to Bowien—that is Bowien.
All the hosts of Mind of a Chef do this to a certain extent. Edward Lee (season three) marries Southern and Korean cooking. Ludo Lefebvre (season five) brings haute cuisine to the Los Angeles strip mall. Everybody augments their idiosyncratic interests with techniques from the three most influential culinary traditions, Italian, French, and Japanese. But Bowien’s cooking is more fluid and disorienting than the rest, lacking the British working class core of Bloomfield’s food or the locavorism of Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson (season three). The thing holding it all together is Bowien, a skinny kid who grew up on Hamburger Helper in Oklahoma and discovered bulgogi when he moved to San Francisco after high school. He borrows from different cultures so freely that it is folly to categorize him. To my embarrassment, I always figured the founder of Mission Chinese Food was, well, Chinese.
Bowien is a voraciously cosmopolitan cook, who snatches influences the way he raids the pantry. In this he illuminates a theme that runs through the entire series: Identity is not bestowed at birth, but constructed. To be sure, the influences of ethnicity and nationality, along with circumstance and experience, are inescapable, and Mind of a Chef is devoted to sending its chefs back to ancestral homes, childhood settings, and first jobs to show how these have been thrown into the great stock pot of a chef’s life.
David Kinch (season four), a fastidious chef who likes to daub his composed dishes with delicate flowers, recounts his horror of seeing a six-foot snapping turtle slaughtered when he was a 16-year-old novice at the New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace. “It was like a crime scene,” he says. “It was an image seared in my mind.” But in another episode, he grips a large spiny lobster and stares it down, its legs cycling slowly through the air. There is a sense that the brutality at the heart of this endeavor has been absorbed, transformed, and ultimately refined into something transcendent.
Similarly, Bowien dwells on his missing Korean heritage, but has also broken free of its trappings. In “Genesis,” he makes homemade gochujang, a chili paste that is a staple of Korean cuisine, with a woman identified as “a Korean mom.” He then uses the gochujang in a raw beef ssam that is characteristically overloaded with disparate, seemingly clashing ingredients: fish sauce, olive oil, garlic chips, batons of pear, and fish roe (even the lettuce wrap component is maximalist, composed of bedded layers of lettuces and herbs). “I don’t get nervous when other chefs come to the restaurant,” he tells this surrogate mother figure, “I get nervous, like, when I cook for, like, you know ... moms.” The chef is an artist, constantly reckoning with his past and his heritage, which are crucial to self-expression and constitute the seat of all meaning. But who Danny Bowien is, what his identity is, lies on the other side of this reckoning. He is himself a creation as much as his own dishes are.
It is an age-old story, the animating force of every bildungsroman and fantasy novel: how one becomes oneself. It is doubly fascinating in the case of these chefs, who chose their vocations when the cult of the celebrity chef was in its infancy, and had no reason to believe they would one day be the subjects of GQ profiles. (Bloomfield divulges that if she had not started working in restaurants she probably would have been a cop.) Three episodes of season six have appeared so far on Facebook Watch (the show’s new home after five seasons with PBS), and what I most hope for is that Bowien will return to Oklahoma, where the food culture straddles the Midwest and the South, but which is also home to some of the country’s best pho. It would be a fitting homecoming for this eclectic chef, and a measure of how far he’s come.